Catherine MacGregor, from The Australian 5 November 2016, “Cricket’s Victor Trumper master of his field, just like Gideon Haigh”
Stroke of Genius is the title of Gideon Haigh’s latest work. It is an apt title, referring as it does to an image of batting perfection. The work is an extended rumination on probably the most famous photographic image of any cricketer in the rich iconography and mythology of the game. The stroke, commonly referred to as ‘‘jumping out’’, shows Australian legend Victor Trumper at the Oval in 1905, poised at the height of his extravagant backswing, front foot airborne, just prior to executing his shot. There is no ball. There are no fielders, no stumps, nor umpires. There is simply a lithe, handsome man, frozen for eternity in a study of physical perfection, which Leonardo da Vinci would have been proud to contrive. The figure evokes a bygone era. Yet, there is also an element of permanence that only timeless genius confers on physical prowess.
As Haigh points out, the photograph adorns the walls of pubs, clubs, homes and cricket grounds across the globe. Surely, neither Trumper nor George Beldam, the English photographer who immortalised him, could have imagined the resonance of this fleeting moment. Given how elusive accurate details of Trumper’s life are, there is a paradoxical element of clarity and definition in this photograph that has eluded all the prose inspired by that abbreviated life.
Compared with today’s hyperbolic, minute dissection of every ball bowled in a Test match, one can only marvel at the enduring fascination the austere image of Trumper exercises over cricket lovers to this day. In an era of ubiquitous cameras, stump microphones and digital ball-tracking technology, Beldam’s stark black-and-white shot barely even qualifies as quaint. Inevitably, one feels we will see the latest colonoscopy of the batsman on strike along with his blood tests.
Jumping Out should have reflected Test cricket the way a sketch of Waterloo resembled the battle of Fallujah. Or an ox cart looks like Warnie’s Ferrari. But it escapes that fate. Somehow, it has attained immortality. Beldam and Trumper inadvertently ensured that. Haigh closes out their innings with this masterpiece to try to explain its enduring appeal.
Indeed, the true stroke of genius is Haigh’s, for he brings Trumper to life in a way that not even the adoring Neville Cardus was able to. In so doing, he has created a work of true genius. It transcends cricket. It is the best cricket book and also the best book by an Australian that I have read.
Among his prolific output this surely ranks as his greatest work. If it had been his only work, it would have stamped him as a genius. Haigh is near the top of the batting order among the most lyrical writers who have chronicled this artistic game, whose literature is the most poetic and scholarly in sport. He is dismissive of cant. He resists charm in a perversely engaging way. And brings a lucid eye to bear on the game. He loves it deeply but can bring an unsparing eye to its follies.
To me, this work stamps him as the best cricket writer ever. That is not a judgment I arrive at lightly. It is one I know he will shrug off with an obscure reference to some fallibility I have missed. But the depth of learning in this work is simply daunting. Stroke of genius? More like a two-day innings, following on at Eden Gardens, carefully crafted with every shot placed perfectly, every run impeccably judged. There is not a wasted syllable in the book yet the prose is opulent, sensuous. Anyone who loves the written word can luxuriate in this work for the sheer beauty of the prose. Interest in the vagaries of early 20th-century cricket is an optional extra.
Indeed, if you were to read only one book about cricket then this would suffice to seduce you into loving the game and even forgiving its elaborate opacity. If you were to read only one book to understand why this transplanted colonial game has become Australia’s national obsession then this should be it. And if you read only this alone of Haigh’s vast, diverse, body of work you would understand why many regard him as the best nonfiction writer in the country at present. For that insight, I am indebted to former Labor senator John Faulkner with whom I shared a platform alongside Gideon a few years ago. I remarked to Faulkner. “He is the best cricket writer ever, isn’t he?” Faulkner, no mean polymath himself, and an accomplished historian of the game, gently upbraided me: “He is more than a cricket writer, comrade. He is simply a majestic prose writer. Better than David Marr.” I bit my lip at the latter, which smacked of “Warne was a freak. Better than Johnny Watkins on his day.” I digress.
Proximity to rare genius can obscure it. We are slow to acknowledge prophets in our own land. I am now happy to assert Haigh is the best cricket writer in the world and probably ever. I have long admired him and been in awe of the unique eye through which he views the game. He can extrapolate from a single, anodyne statistic material for an extended treatise on an emerging trend in a particular match or, just as often, a meta-trend in the global game.
Last summer, he tallied the sheer volume of Test appearances and runs embodied in Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Jacques Kallis and Shivnarine Chanderpaul, all of whom had exited the game in short order. Through the prism of their departures he examined the state of the global game. It was a stroke of genius. On a rainy day absent a ball being bowled he will conjure a piece of cricket writing worthy of the greats.
I know of no other writer, with the possible exception of Ed Smith, whose mind works in such an innovative, perceptive unorthodox way. Haigh never writes about the obvious. But when he examines the obscure it suddenly seems blindingly apparent. Over a summer he delivers such shrewd analysis every day. He eschews conventional wisdom and delves into the societal impact of the action and the symbiotic relationship between game and our lives. His voice is unique, and authoritative.
So what of Trumper and that shot? Only Haigh could have created a book of such ambitious scope out of a single still image. One wet winter night in Canberra last year I met him for dinner after he had been working all day in the National Library of Australia and we discussed his interest in Trumper, notably the whereabouts of a bat that had belonged to the great man. I was intrigued at his line of inquiry but at something of a loss as to how one could derive a major work from it.
A single photograph of a long dead player? Surely there was something more interesting, such as a history of Rotary, to demand his attention? Of course, like Gideon, one of my earliest memories of cricket was that very shot of Trumper in an Alan Davidson cricket book, next to a lovely study of Wally Hammond caressing a cover drive, white willow flashing like a wand. In 1964 they looked less antiquarian than they do now. But in the social media age surely people would prefer to watch Chris Gayle smoking sixes online rather than reading about a fading sepia image of a man with a bat the size of a toothpick, wearing an Australian cap that, rather than resembling the sacred baggy green, looked like that worn by cub scouts? A whole book dedicated to this? No way.
But I underestimated the span of Haigh’s talent and ability to draw conclusions from disparate trends and discern patterns among them. We finally get to the Oval with Beldam, Trumper and the camera via paintings of village games at Hove, the siege of Sebastopol, and the ructions between amateurs and professionals in both cricket and photography as each of the crafts evolved amid the industrial revolution.
Hence Jumping Out is merely the prism through which Haigh examines all these converging themes. Indeed, my initial ambition for this review was to try to emulate Haigh in using Stroke of Genius as a prism through which to examine his overall contribution to cricket literature. It was a task beyond me. His talent is too vast. His body of work is too enormous and eclectic to condense it into a single review. Beldam captured Trumper. But Haigh eluded me. His body of work undoubtedly warrants a discrete study. Perhaps an earnest doctoral student may attempt this, thus establishing a nexus between Haigh and our tertiary education sector that hitherto has not existed.
He is an autodidact and polymath untainted by attendance at an Australian university. His skill as a researcher and the grace of his prose is as much a gift of the gods as Tendulkar’s batting. Yet he has honed it alone, like a great player, through dedication to his craft and an unstinting pursuit of perfection embellished by his own voracious reading. In Stroke of Genius we witness apotheosis.
Apart from the narrative, which flows beautifully, this book is scholarship of genuine ballast. The survey of the material pertaining to Trumper, and of the visual portrayals of cricket in sketch, photography and film, is exemplary. Likewise, Haigh’s account of the evolution of the art of batting from the dawn of underarm village matches through the zenith of the golden age of CB Fry, Ranjitsinhji, Andrew Stoddart, Gilbert Jessop and Trumper is exhaustive.
Haigh’s divagations are delightful but consequential. The journey on which we embark with him is so engrossing it is easy to forget our ultimate destination: the Oval with Trumper and Beldam with a rudimentary camera. On the way we encounter the earliest hand-drawn sketches of village cricket; we see the first indigenous team in incongruous waistcoats and European headdress. We learn that Beldam took up cricket and through sheer application achieved first-class status at Middlesex.
And of course the great Trumper is situated in the era when batting came of age in the form recognisable to us today, with its established technique, power and shot selection. Trumper had that indefinable aesthetic quality that predestined his elevation to sporting heroism. But the times did suit him. He rose to prominence as the nation that adored him was coming into being. He was the first truly Australian sporting hero. A local lad worshipped in England. Without drawing too long a bow he was the harbinger of another myth of Australian masculinity that was born in the very year he died. Trumper was the personification of the lithe, dashing young Australian lad, fearlessly stepping out to meet the foe. He died in 1915, aged just 37, but the myth of the dashing young Aussie was born.
If this review seems lavish in its generosity, be assured I have every reason to loathe the author. In his wonderful 2013 book on Shane Warne, Haigh displays the same acuity of vision he brings to bear on Beldam’s Trumper. He notes that wicked ball Warne delivered to Mike Gatting in 1993, during the Ashes in England. It turned viciously and bowled Gatting around his ample behind, linking him and Warnie in perpetuity on YouTube.
No matter how many billions of views that Ball of the Century achieves, Gatting will always look like a guileless mug. As Haigh wryly observes, a great career was reduced to being “the straight man in Warne’s pie-in-the-face routine”. A champion stripped of dignity and cruelly reduced to a grade journeyman for eternity. Haigh did the same thing to me in the nets at Canberra’s Manuka Oval some years ago. Indeed, he added ignominy to injury.
First he broke my foot with a searing drive back at me at the bowler’s end. Thus immobilised, I was a sitting duck for his right-arm offspin pitching on my left-hander’s leg stump. He knocked me over neck and crop. It was starkly captured on video, though I have been spared Gatting’s public odium. Last time I dared look a mere 426 people had viewed it. I contributed about 390 of those hits. In Stroke of Genius Haigh describes himself as a ‘‘diffident mediocrity’’ of a cricketer. It is the only error in the text. But I am obliged to say that, aren’t I? Whatever his talent on the square, he is certainly a Hall of Fame writer. Our best. Probably the best.
Catherine McGregor is a cricket player, writer and broadcaster.
Stroke of Genius: Victor Trumper and the Shot that Changed Cricket…………By Gideon Haigh (Hamish Hamilton, 315pp, $39.99 (hb)
A NOTE from EARDLEY LIEVERSZ in Sydney: “I am used to quality work from Gideon Haigh. But this review, of the latest effort by Haigh, is easily the best cricket book review I have ever read. Although it is review of a book on Trumper, it encapsulates the genius of Gideon Haigh. Haigh as a cricket writer, and McGregor, as a reviewer par excellence, are both on display. I must read this book. And then I will return to this review and savour the prose of McGregor, the literary genius of Haigh, and the batting of Trumper. … Very few reviews create such anticipation with regard to a book.”